Saturday, July 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Are You With Me? Show, Don't Tell, in Your Opening

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s questions:

Does this feel like a good opening image for a fantasy novel (potential series)?
How's my showing vs. telling?

Market/Genre: Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Over the stench of sweat and grime, the metallic scent curled its way up Llew’s nostrils and she knew she wasn’t home. Brushing aside the heavy material muffling her face she saw the light spilling from the window of a house that never slept onto the wood-plank wall opposite.

The gravel beneath absorbed her heat through her thin shirt, and something of substantial weight was draped over her. That probably should have been the first thing she noticed, but it took her that long to realize it wasn’t just a heavy feeling in her lungs. No. It was a bona fide something. And it was sticky and damp.

Metallic smell. Sticky and damp. Heavy thing.

Her throat heaved, but her stomach was empty. She wanted to fling the body off her, but it was literally a dead weight on Llew’s small frame. She peeled a stray arm off her shoulder and rocked her body, trying to topple the body from her. It teetered, and settled back in place when she rolled back. A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled a short distance, tinkering across the gritty ground. The low light reflected off its jagged tips. A broken bottle.

A broken bottle. The man. The man that had grabbed her and pushed her into an alleyway, threatening her if she didn’t let him have his way with her. She had refused. She had struggled. But she hadn’t had the weapon.

Remembered pain and stabbing glass flashed through Llew’s mind, interspersed with numbing blackness. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank.

Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood. But, whose?

My Thoughts in Purple:
Over the stench of sweat and grime, the metallic scent curled its way up Llew’s nostrils and [she knew she wasn’t home.] "she knew" is a filter word that distances the POV, and can give the prose a told feel. [Brushing aside the heavy material muffling her face [she saw] another filter word, so the passage is now feeling more told than simply having a distant third POV the light spilling from the window of a house that never slept onto the wood-plank wall opposite.] This sentence overall reads a little clunky because there's a lot going on it in and I'm unclear what it means.

The gravel beneath absorbed her heat through her thin shirt, and something of substantial weight was draped over her. [That probably should have been the first thing she noticed, but it took her that long to realize it wasn’t just a heavy feeling in her lungs.] Telling here. This is outside looking down, not what the POV is experiencing [No. It was a bona fide something. And it was sticky and damp.

Metallic smell. Sticky and damp. Heavy thing.
] This all feels shown and like something the POV is thinking

Her throat heaved, but her stomach was empty. [She wanted to fling the body off her, but it was literally a dead weight on Llew’s small frame.] Feels told. She doesn't act here, it just tells us that she wanted to act but didn't. [She peeled a stray arm off her shoulder and rocked her body,] This shows, it's her acting [trying to] telling motive. "Trying to" isn't usually action. topple the body from her. It teetered, and settled back in place [when she rolled back.] Telling a bit. "When" statements distance the reader again, because they often read as if the narrator already knows what's happened and isn't in the moment when it's happening [A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled a short distance, tinkering across the gritty ground. The low light reflected off its jagged tips. A broken bottle.] This feels shown

[A broken bottle. The man. The man that had grabbed her and pushed her into an alleyway, threatening her if she didn’t let him have his way with her. She had refused. She had struggled. But she hadn’t had the weapon.

Remembered pain and stabbing glass flashed through Llew’s mind, interspersed with numbing blackness. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank.

Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood. But, whose?] This section feels shown and in her head to me. It's also a great spot to add some internalization to show Llew's personality and get deeper in her head.

The questions:
Does this feel like a good opening image for a fantasy novel (potential series)?

This scene felt more like the opening of a thriller or crime fiction to me. I didn't get a fantasy vibe off this because there's nothing "fantasy" in it. No world building details that show a fantasy setting, no magic, no "non-Earth" hints. It's possible this is urban fantasy and this takes place in the real world with magic or supernatural elements, but I'm still not seeing any hints of the fantastic yet.

If this is a traditional fantasy world, I'd suggest adding details that set this firmly in the world you've created. Add in things that make it clear this isn't our world and give some idea as to the setting the story takes place in. If it's urban fantasy, you have more time to get to the fantastical parts since readers will be expecting the real world.

(Here are some tips on using POV to describe your setting)

As for the scene itself, there are some intriguing aspects. A woman waking up after a horrible attack is dramatic, and wondering if she killed her attacker is a question readers will likely want to know the answer to.

However, one of the risks of a scene like this is that the action starts too fast and the reader doesn't have time to connect to the character enough to care about what's going on. I'm not being drawn in yet because I feel too detached from Llew. I'm not solid in her head experiencing this with her, I'm off to the sidelines watching or being told what happened. I'm not with her, I'm with some gal having a bad day. It's not personal yet.

(Here are some tips on writing internalization)

There are bits toward the end where I start to feel in her head and I'm drawn in there. I'd suggest more internalization from the start so the reader can bond with her and care what's happening to her. Which leads us into...

How's my showing vs. telling?
Instead of telling readers about the situation Llew finds herself in, show it from her perspective. She wakes up (I'm assuming) and smells things. She realizes she isn't home. She sees an unfamiliar house. Feels gravel under her. Figures out there's a body on her. Struggles to shove it off. Remembers the attack. Feels the blood.

All of these things provide you with strong details and emotions to work with to convey the sense of fear and panic to your reader. Llew is probably freaking out, right? Scared out of her mind? What would she see when she opens her eyes? What would she think and feel?

Now that you know how the scene unfolds, try shifting into Llew's eyes and view the same details from her perspective. Don't tell us what the author knows is there and why, show us what Llew sees and how she reacts to those details.

Also be wary of some common telling red flags. "trying to" tells motive, not shows action. It says what Llew is trying to do instead of showing what she's actually doing. She's shoving the body, struggling under it, wiggling to the side. Try showing actions the reader can see and figure out what she's trying to do by what she does. Most times you can make the scene stronger by cutting the "trying to."

(Here's more information on the troubles with "trying to" and how to fix them)

"When" statements are another red flag. If a character is in the moment experiencing something, they'll relay it as it happens.
It teetered, and settled back in place when she rolled back.
This is someone relating events after they've happened. They've seen her struggle, get out from under by rolling back, then the body teeters back into place. We're told the body settles back before we actually see Llew roll out from under it. Try relating events as they happen. She rolls back, gets out from under the body, then it teeters and settles back into place.

(Here are more telling words and tips on fixing them)

Other telling red flags include filtering words. While filtering in and of itself isn't always a bad thing (plenty of writers do it, especially with third omniscient or a distant third person), it tends to distance the reader from the POV. By definition, the point of view character is showing the story through their eyes. If they describe it, we know they saw it, so words like "She saw..." are redundant. (And pull the reader out of the story because it reminds them they're reading) So be wary of phrases like "She felt, she wanted, she saw, she heard, she knew," etc. Tastes vary on this, but I prefer to cut filtering words out unless they're absolutely necessary. (more on filter words on Monday)

Overall, it seems like the story is starting to hit its stride there toward the bottom, so I don't think it would take much tweaking to polish the beginning. Establish a personal connection with the reader right away (by giving them something about Llew they can bond with and like about her. Internalization works well here), and put them with Llew in her situation and let them worry along with her.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. You've opened with a strong hook - the MC is in a scary situation - covered in blood after what sounds like a fight. As Janice said, it could be strengthened with more shows here.

    I'll mention a few things that stood out for me: The line beginning with "the gravel..." also sounded clunky, if she's on cold, rough ground, it would be smoother to just say so.

    It sounds like there are multiple sensations, strong sensations, all competing for attention in her semi-conscious brain, which is difficult to describe. I'm wondering which would be the most pertinent- maybe go with that? Coldness - heaviness- disorientation- maybe even dizziness or a ringing in the ears, neither of which you mentioned but are certainly relevant after a shock and loss of consciousness.

    Also, you use the word 'body' a few times in rapid succession, refering both to herself and the unknown person. Maybe alternate- substitute corpse or cadaver for one, or if that sounds too clinical/ cold or even too interpretive (is she certain he's dead and not unconscious? How does she know?)- 'the man/ person' might be all to say.

    Having said all that I think you have good material to use here, and I'd like to know how she came to be in that situation, and what the weapon was. It's a lot to take in for an opening. I'm wondering if your story starts with her fighting off the assailant, action is usually a stronger hook than the "waking up" start.

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  2. Thanks a bunch, Janice. Just goes to show you can read all the advice in the world but applying it is another matter altogether.

    This opening is probably put in context by my by-line: Llew has a gift. Her body can heal from any injury--but at a cost to anyone nearby.

    I've finally completed an entire draft, so this came just in time for the editing runs. Great timing. I know what I need to keep an eye out for.

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  3. Deberelene, most welcome. Application is always harder :) Love the healing angle, great idea. Best of luck with your revisions!

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